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On the Genealogy of Script I & II

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This is a brief exploration of the origin of written language and how different writing systems and alphabets are related – or, in some cases, how they can possibly be related. As with everything else, when we get very far back in time, we enter an area of theory and speculation rather than certain facts. That's unavoidable. I want to make clear that such theories and speculations are subjective, they are a matter of plausibility rather than certainty.

Some sources might disagree with what I say here, especially about Chinese script and the script of the Maya – but the theories I present are supported by much more historical details than I bring up here. After all, this is an article about the genealogy of script, and we should not let the article become too long by allowing ourselves to lose the focus from that.

Due to the length of this article, I felt compelled to divide it into two parts. Part 1 (with sections I and II) below. Part 2 (with sections III - VIII)," On the Genealogy of Script III - VIII)".

I. Introduction

II. Alphabets

III. Cuneiform Script & Hieroglyphs (In "On the Genealogy of Script III - VIII")

IV. The Sumerian Heritage (In "On the Genealogy of Script III - VIII")

V. The Pharaonic Heritage (In "On the Genealogy of Script III - VIII")

VI. Korean (In "On the Genealogy of Script III - VIII")

VII. Alphabets Created by Identifiable Individuals (In "On the Genealogy of Script III - VIII")

VIII. Artificial Alphabets (In "On the Genealogy of Script III - VIII")

I. Introduction

Script can be alphabetic or non-alphabetic.

An alphabet is a set of signs or characters being the elements of (supposedly) phonetically written language: letters or syllables. So they come in three forms:

  • Those consisting of both vowels and consonants - like the Latin alphabet.

  • Those consisting of only consonants, or consonants and vowels indicated by diacritical marks - like Hebrew.

  • Syllabic ones, consisting of syllables. Like the Japanese Hiragana and Katakana, or the Indian alphabets.

Except for Japanese and Korean, all major alphabets (but not scripts) used today can be traced back to one and the same North Semitic alphabet from ca 1600 BC. (See reservations below.) In Section II we show a very brief overview of the main lines.

There was writing before 1600 BC too. In Section III we look at that, and further back to where writing might have begun.

In Sections VI and V, we will take a look at two branches of script that did not belong to Section II.

Note that any use of the term "language" or any mentioning of the name of a language, as "Tibetan" or "Chinese" here denotes script; an alphabet or other system of writing. The genealogy of speech differs from the genealogy of script. We do not concern ourselves with speech in this essay.

Very roughly history shows a progression from pictograms/ideograms to syllabic writing, further to consonantal alphabets, and finally to full vowel and consonant ones. There is not always a fixed borderline between them, mixed forms have existed and exist now, and occasional steps in the other direction might occur. All languages have not developed the whole way through this sequence; there is no reason to believe they would.

It can be interesting to see how the change between the forms might have occurred:

Pictograms/ideograms became syllabism by letting a pictogram represent the first syllable of the word (pronounced) denoting what this pictogram first depicted. Let us illustrate this by a simple and compeletely theoretical example. Say that you have a pictogram meaning "tiger". You pronounce it "tiger", and let the same pictogram represent the syllable "ti". This pictogram then undergoes some simplification, and a syllabic "letter" is born.

Syllabic writing can have changed to consonantal, simply by omitting the vowels of the syllables. Consonants are the significant part of words, so a syllable can be reduced to a written consonant - while speech continued to pronounce a syllable. That would mean that "ti", "ta", "te", etc., were reduced to just one letter, one denoting "t". Thus the number of letters could be drastically reduced.

If you question that consonants are more significant than vowels: Don't you "ndrstnd ths rthr wll wtht vwls?" But try the same phrase with only vowels: "uea i ae e iou oe".

When consonantal alphabets were inherited by other peoples, they found no vowels for their words, so sometimes they added separate ones to the script. (That was what the Greeks did when they adopted a Canaanitic consonantal script.) They could go in the other direction, restoring syllabism.

The North Semitic alphabet, with which we will begin this overview, consisted of consonants only. There was a South Semitic one too (leading to Ethiopian script), and there is no reason to exclude the possibility of other alphabetic experiments in Syria or elsewhere at the time as well. But no other grew surviving branches or sprouted.

The North Semitic alphabet possibly bifurcated into two branches, the Aramaic and the Canaanitic. There can be reason to question if these two are really sharing "parental" alphabet. The Canaanitic alphabet is sometimes called Phoenician, while the Phoenician alphabet is claimed to be an "ancestor" of the Aramaic. So, there is a relation between them, but take its exact nature with a grain of salt.

If the Phoenician (Canaanitic) alphabet is indeed the first, to which so many others can be traced, then the bifurcation in Section II is misleading. The Aramaic would then be derived from the Canaanitic, but the Aramaic branch would remain as stated anyway.

II. Alphabets

The Aramaic Branch

The Aramaic alphabet is the origin of today's Hebrew and Arabic alphabets. Sometimes slightly modified, the latter is used for a large number of languages; e.g. Urdu and modern Persian (Farsi).

The oldest Hebrew was written with a Canaanitic alphabet. The earliest documented use of "modern" Hebrew (written with an Aramaic-style script) is from 183 BC. 150 years later it had totally replaced the old Canaanitic one.

Iranic systems stem from Aramaic, and include (but are not limited to) the alphabets of Pahlavi (Middle Persian), Avestan, Manichaean, and the important Sogdian.

The Sogdian script is the basis for the alphabets of Old Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu, and Uyghur.

Armenian script, basically Iranic in origin, but with Greek influences, was created by Mesrop Mashtots in the 4th-5th century AD.

The Georgian script is similar, probably based on Armenian. Today it has developed to the Mkhedruli alphabet.

Kharosthi, an Indian alphabet, is derived from a Persian branch of Aramaic. All other Indian systems developed from the Brahmi alphabet, itself stemming from Aramaic.

Brahmi developed into three branches: a northern, a southern, and Sinhalese script.

The origin of Tamil script is not very clear. A common view is that it has developed from the Brahmi script, via the oldest Sinhalese alphabet; but some scholars think it stems from the script of the Indus valley, the oldest known Indian script. The Indus valley script has not yet been deciphered.

The southern, Dravidi alphabets led to the scripts of Malayalam, Grantha, Telugu, and others...

The northern branch, which is by far the most influential, first developed to the Gupta script. From that stems Nagari (Devanagari), the alphabet of Sanskrit. In various forms it is used for several languages, and it dominates India today. Further, from Nagari we got the alphabets of Bengali and Nepali.

Another branch stemming from the Gupta alphabet led out from India proper, to the alphabets of Tibetan, Mon, Khmer, Burmese, and Thai.

Note that Iranic and Indian (or Indic) denote alphabets created within respective tradition, not necessarily all alphabets used there. Urdu, for instance, the language of the Indian Muslims (and Pakistan), is written with an Arabic alphabet; and so is Modern Persian.

Moreover, an alphabet of a certain tradition can be used outside the area proper of that culture. Indian-type alphabets are used in Tibet and parts of South East Asia. In the same way Latin script is the basis for the present alphabets of e.g. Vietnamese or Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian).

Nothing stated in Section II includes non-alphabetic script. Old Persian was written with cuneiform script, and the oldest known Indian script was pictographic. The latter was used in the Indus Valley Culture and is still undeciphered.

Iranic is not the same as Persian, and neither should be seen as limited to today's Iran. I refrain from defining the term exactly here and trust your intuitive understanding of that and similar expressions. Interested readers can easily look up the terms.

The Canaanitic Branch

The Greeks adopted the Canaanitic alphabet, added vowels and further adapted it to their needs. From the Greek alphabets stems four important branches: The Italic, the Slavic, the Coptic, and Germanic runes.

The best known Italic alphabet is that of Latin. With modifications and adaptions (extra letters and diacritical marks) it is used for a large number of languages today. It developed from earlier Italic alphabets: the Oscan, the Umbrian, and especially the Etruscan one.

The Coptic alphabet is derived from the Greek, with some additions taken from Demotic Egyptian (Old Egyptian script). Today it is used only for the liturgy of the Coptic Church, a branch of Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity.

Various Rune alphabets were in use by pre-Christian Germanic peoples. Their origin is a matter of dispute. Some say Greek, some say Latin, some say Etruscan, some say a mix of more than one of them.

So called Turkish Runes are not really Runes at all, they belong to the Aramaic branch, and were used for Old Turkish.

The Slavic alphabets have a special history. Cyril, later St. Cyril (Kyrillos), 827-869 AD, was librarian and secretary of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius. Together with his brother, Methodius, he decided to become a missionary in 864. Invited by the local prince, they went to Moravia (Mähren). There Cyril translated religious texts, and for that purpose he had to invent an alphabet which was suitable for a Slavic language. Cyril and Methodius created the Glagolitic alphabet, which was based on Greek. Today it is used only as religious language in a few small Eastern Churches.

The Cyrillic alphabet, which is named after Cyril, was created later, probably during the 10th century AD. With adaptions it is used today for many languages: most notably Russian, but also e.g. Ukrainian, Serbian, and Bulgarian.

The article continues with "On the Genealogy of Script III - VIII".

(This article is based on material previously published in TMA/Meriondho Leo.)

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Copyright © 2008, 2021 Meleonymica/Mictorrani. All Rights Reserved.

(The lead image shows Cyrillic script from "Ceasoslov" (Часословь), a horologion published in Blaj. Original in the Central University Library of Cluj-Napoca. Public Domain.)

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I have this fascination with words and letters, languages and culture. Indeed, some or most languages we have that were still existing today have their own branches and roots that made it as how it was today.

I think for this genealogy of script article series, you must cover the Romance languages as well. Too funny to say this but if English was considered the universal language then so the German as well? I had this thought lingering on my mind when I had a debated topic with my professor last year.

Nonetheless, I like the things you covered for today. True enough, language is a part of history and somehow may or may not be related to these existing forms of communication today.

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2 months ago

As for the Romance languages, that would be on the genealogy of speech, rather than script. Their script is based on the Latin alphabet, so in this context there is not more to say about them. However, the genealogy of speech is interesting as well, even if it is a slightly different topic. It is much more complex, as well, since spoken language can have several roots. English is a good example of that.

Universal language... well, I would say that there is no truly universal language. There is so, however, in a more limited sense. English is the largest of them right now, and I think French is more universal than German. Latin is a universal language in some sciences. And so on... It's an interesting question, however, which could very well be worth its own article.

Then there are artificially created languages with the aspiration of becoming universal; the best known is Esperanto.

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1 month ago

I am absolutely facinated by the Korean Language...................... I know it sounds weird. I actually want to learn the language................... I like the article it's very informative.

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2 months ago

You will see more about Korean in part 2 tomorrow. Don't miss that!

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2 months ago

Abviously won't I even subscribed to you too see more

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